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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Whistler at the Musée d’Orsay: An American in Paris

Sonya Ribner discusses her experiences at an exhibition of James McNeil Whistler's paintings.

Roiling waters. Liberated waistlines. Crumbling palazzos. From his landscapes to portraits, James McNeil Whistler brings to the fore the equally haunting and mesmerizing beauty of natural movement. As the historic Frick Collection undergoes renovation, a collection of the artist’s masterworks takes residence at Musée d’Orsay in Paris from February 8 to May 8. For the first time ever, a varied selection of Whistler’s paintings, etchings, and watercolors are paired with Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (from Orsay’s main collection): the picture of American style with French sensibility.    

Length, Width, and Everything in Between

“I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary, because heaven has granted me no offspring.” While Whistler’s portrait subjects appear dated by hair styles and dress, it is perhaps the artist’s self-assured brushstrokes and attention to detail that allows for the subjects of his portraits to have a presence outside of time. 

Mrs. Frances Leyland in Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink rejects the corseted silhouette of the Victorian style and appears as natural as the blossoms of the almond tree that grows beside her. Whistler had a hand in every component of this work, from Mrs. Leyland’s tea gown to the frame that encases her. The monochromatic minimalism enables the viewer to enjoy the harmony of colors and shapes. It frees the eye from solely focusing on the image depicted on the canvas and gives way to the general aura exuded by Mrs. Leyland. Her elegance lives in the present; she is timeless. 

Composed Color

A melody with a tempo that escapes Victorian English and bourgeois French conventions: the correspondence between tones of color and textures of sound evidently guides Whistler’s brush. The studies for Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice on display at Orsay indicate how the artist’s pursuit of formal harmonies prompted him to view people and settings as fluid as a song. In this sense, choice of color and tone reflects a worldview. 

Whistler’s body of work develops a harmony between the Aestheticism of the American Golden Age and the Realism of French artists such as Courbet and Manet. The exhibition hall in Orsay comes alive with the remarkably vital portraits of nineteenth century nobility, one of whom is Count Montesquiou, the inspiration for Baron de Charlus in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Whistler orchestrates a symphony of colors, symbols, and gestures that takes art beyond the canvas.

Image credits: James McNeill Whistler/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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